Monday, February 11, 2008

Sense of Disaster Over Lost Monument Sweeps Nation

A woman cries at the ruins of the Sungnyemun, the nation's no.1 national treasure, which was destroyed in a fire Sunday night.

Fire Destroys Historic Seoul Landmark
Shock at Destruction of Historic Seoul Landmark
Gate That Survived 600 Years Consumed by Fire in Hours
Koreans were reaching for the superlatives on Monday. "The Korean equivalent of the 9/11 attacks happened while the whole country was watching." "The Republic of Korea's no. 1 National Treasure or no. 1 national pride turned to ashes in an instant."

They were reacting to the Sungnyemun -- commonly known as Namdaemun or South Gate, a symbol of the Korean nation for 610 years -- being reduced to ashes on live TV. This historic monument had survived the Japanese invasions (1592-1598), the Manchurian invasions (1627-1637), and the Korean War. But early Monday morning there was grief, shock and disbelief: many felt a great sin against history had been committed in what may have been the act of a lone arsonist and the failure of the authorities to bring the flames under control.

The former castle gate, now a detached monument, had stood imposingly on Namdaemunro Street in Jung-gu, Seoul until Sunday night. On Monday, traders in the nearby Namdaemun Market, who used to regard the gate as part of their life, had to look at the ashes. Kim Hee-chul (62) was furious. "What did the National Emergency Management Agency and the Cultural Heritage Administration do when the no. 1 National Treasure was being reduced to ashes in the center of the capital of the Republic of Korea?" He said he wept when he saw the roof tiles fall off.

Oh Ji-hye (25), an elementary school teacher, said, "As a teacher, I feel ashamed to tell my children that our country is still experiencing a disaster that would occur in an underdeveloped country."

The websites of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the CHA were inundated with messages criticizing the government for negligent management of cultural assets. The CHA's website was down from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Monday due to overload.

Chrysanthemums are placed on Monday at the gate of the Sungnyemun, which was destroyed in a fire Sunday night.

One netizen posted a message on the Culture Ministry's website which read, "The main gate of the Unhyeon Palace was broken by a speeding car (in 2007). The Sungnyemun was reduced to ashes by a fire on Sunday night. The Jangan Gate, the north gate of Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province was partly burned. Sueojangdae, the two-story building in the Mt. Namhan Fortress in Seoul, was destroyed by fire. The Naksan Temple in Yangyang, Gangwon Province was burned down (in 2005). Can't you take care of our cultural assets?"

Baek Sang-bin, a professor of psychiatry at Gangneung Asan Hospital of the University of Ulsan said, "Just as Americans were thrown into a panic after watching on TV the World Trade Center buildings, the symbol of the U.S., collapse in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Koreans now feel a great sense of loss and frustration at the sight of the Namdaemun collapse. The disaster in Seoul didn't pose any threat to their lives. But they psychologically felt the equivalent of feelings the American had in the wake of the 9/11 attacks." If they happen to watch the scene of a disaster with their own eyes, people regard its consequences as happening to them personally and feel great unease and panic, Baek added.

Ha Ji-hyun, a professor of psychiatry at Konkuk University Hospital, said Namdaemun was one of two national symbols that “protected us psychologically” alongside the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who destroyed the Japanese Navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 16th century. “People's sense of panic and frustration over their loss of Namdaemun will linger on for a long time."

Park Hwan-young, a professor of the Folklore Department at ChoongAng University, said, "It is the national pain to have lost the time-honored national treasure. It was not the mere loss of an old building, but a total loss of important folklore materials that preserved the wisdom of our ancestors."

Shin Young-chul, a professor of psychiatry at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, called for calm. "A collective expression of anger might turn into a movement to make somebody a scapegoat. We have to calm down and discuss carefully what to do."

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